Commentary Magazine

The Politics of Despair, by Hadley Cantril

Communism in Western Europe
The Politics of Despair.
By Hadley Cantril.
Basic Books. 269 pp. $5.00.


Why is the Communist party so much stronger in France and Italy than in any other democratic country of the Western world? It is a prevalent notion among Americans that the iniquities of the French and Italian social system are to blame for this; a strong CP is the nemesis of a backward capitalism.

The analysis of the problem of the French and Italian Communist “protest vote” presented in The Politics of Despair starts on a note reminiscent of the “nemesis” theory. The author stresses “the enormous difference between capitalism as it operates in the United States and capitalism as it operates in France and Italy.” In the last-named countries, most workers “feel themselves excluded” from the capitalist economy. The American system, by contrast, is “much more of an open one”; it is “a system in which the workers feel they are participants; a system in which the road ahead is not closed to them just because they are workers.”

This comparison seems to me overdrawn. If the American workers, unlike their French and Italian counterparts, accept the existing system, the reason is not that they are “participants” in the running of the economy; they have no share in the making of major managerial decisions, nor do they have any prospects for advancing themselves in the hierarchy of the economic system. What makes a difference is the vastly superior real income of the American worker, which not only insures a better satisfaction of his material wants, but also gives him a much better social standing vis-à-vis other groups. In these respects, American capitalism in fact works much better than French and Italian capitalism, even though the latter is by no means as callous and backward as the “nemesis” theory would have it. Also, the superiority of American capitalism does not, in itself, explain the “protest vote,” because the same contrast exists between America and a number of European countries where the Communist movement is weak.

But the comparison between American and French-Italian capitalism is merely an introductory theme of The Politics of Despair. The hook is not a comparative study; its approach is rather descriptive-psychological. Its body consists of summaries and analyses of interviews administered hy American research teams and indigenous polling organizations to French and Italian working-class respondents. The research was guided hy a set of methodological and theoretical principles developed and concisely outlined hy Professor Cantril. These boil down to a biologically oriented conception of reality similar to that expounded long ago hy the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, according to which each species lives in an “Umwelt” (literally, environment) fashioned by its particular needs, drives, and sensory equipment. For Professor Cantril, social groups and even individuals have their characteristic “Umwelt” or (to use the clumsy technical term coined by him) “reality world,” in terms of which their behavior should be studied.

Many revealing statements made by French and Italian Communist party members and non-members voting for the party are reproduced in the book. All these show (as one would expect from voters endorsing an extreme oppositional party) both a sense of deep personal frustration and principled dissatisfaction with the established order of things. In the Italian interviews, one often encounters descriptions of naked poverty; in the French, the outstanding material problem seems to be, not abject want, but rather the difficulty or impossibility of satisfying more than one’s essential needs. Both groups of respondents voice non-material as well as material grievances. They complain about being pushed down, deliberately kept in an inferior social position (France), or abandoned, not being able to receive sympathetic hearing from those in authority (Italy).



One of the important findings extracted from Professor Cantril’s material is that the radical, revolutionary type of personality is very rare even among Communist party members, let alone Communist “protest voters.” The respondents quoted are moderate people—moderate in their aspirations, in their demands for change, even in their resentments. The book’s title seems much too strong for what actually is in it; accents of real despair are rarely heard. One of the most delightful vignettes in Professor Cantril’s book shows an Italian Communist who takes enormous pride in being a substantial citizen; even the priest takes his hat off to him. This is not a desperate man.

Professor Cantril’s analysis is valuable because of the emphasis he puts upon the “Umwelt” idea. The radical vote, according to him, is not a reflection pure and simple of objective reality; it is a product of subjective interpretations brought to bear upon external stimuli. This is surely the right approach.

Still, the book as a whole fails to provide an explanation of the exceptional voting strength of the Communist party in France and Italy as compared with a number of European countries where the working of “capitalism” is far closer to the French and Italian than to the American pattern (e.g., Belgium, West Germany, and Austria). The Politics of Despair leaves some of the most important aspects of the problem of the Communist protest vote obscure, perhaps because it concentrates exclusively upon the element of working-class frustration.



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